Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Revolt over a Prayer Book

I’ve been reading a history of the Tudors, covering four rulers of England – Henry VIII, the boy-king Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I. Sixteenth-century England, particularly from about 1520 to 1558, when Elizabeth became queen, was a time and place of social, religious and economic upheavals that left their mark on England and Britain, and even upon what became the English colonies in North America.

The religious upheaval was likely the most profound and far-reaching. When Henry VIII became king in 1509, all seemed right with the English world. Its landscape was dotted with hundreds of abbeys, cathedrals, monasteries, convents, and friaries. At one point, the Pope named Henry the “Defender of the Faith” (a title still used by British sovereigns). No one could imagine the convulsion that England was going to experience, largely but not totally caused by the inability of Henry and his wife Katherine of Aragon to produce a male heir.

But the convulsion came. Henry broke with Rome but not as completely as we might think. At one point in the English Reformation, a conservative reaction set it, and Henry pulled in the reins. But overall, by the time of Henry’s death in 1547, English Catholicism was largely in physical and financial ruin. Some of the worst depredations included the destruction of the shrines of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey and Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral.

During the short reign (1547 – 1553) of Henry’s son, Edward, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, published a new order of religious worship, what today we call The Book of Common Prayer. It caused a rebellion by the common people, especially those who lived in rural areas, who demanded a return to the “old religion.” Yes, the revolt was put down. It was one of numerous revolts that happened all through this period. Upheaval must have seemed almost commonplace.

It’s what can happen when a society becomes unhinged from its most basic foundations.

At First Things, editor R.R. Reno recently posted a short article about T.S. Eliot and the idea of liberalism. Eliot, in his Idea of a Christian Society, discussed liberalism as a foundational principle for any society. Liberalism champions freedom, especially individual freedom, but that it also something of a fatal flaw. Individual freedom invariably leads to individual excess, and liberalism is forced to turn to a stronger and stronger central government to maintain order. It is one reason, Reno says for example, why universities are increasingly in the business of speech codes, censorship, the stifling of free speech, and ever more stringent regulations on sexual relations.

The people who lived through the Tudor era may have something to teach us. The Book of Common Prayer wasn’t the cause of societal upheaval, but it did provide a spark. Conditions were already worsening; things were breaking down, from law and order to growing economic inequality.

When we unhinge ourselves from the principles and ideas and guide society – like Christianity – upheaval and chaos can often be the result. And the only remedy for upheaval and chaos is a strong, authoritarian government that will, inevitably, reduce individual freedoms.

Painting: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession, attributed to Lucas de Heere. From left: a figure representing war; Philip of Spain, husband of Mary; Henry VIII; his son, Edward; Elizabeth; and figures representing peace and plenty. 

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